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Kim Jong Un: Despot or peacemaker?

by
June 12, 2018

Authoritarian North Korea leader Kim Jong-un (C) has surprised with his diplomatic search for peace.

Enigmatic North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who is believed to be in his mid-30s, has ruled the secretive authoritarian state and self-proclaimed nuclear power since December 2011.

He is the son of long-time dictator Kim Jong Il and grandson of the "eternal president" Kim Il Sung.

Since coming to power, the youngest Kim has overseen the continued development of North Korea's nuclear programme, increasing tensions with South Korea and the United States, especially since Donald Trump became US president at the beginning of 2017.

The war-like rhetoric these tensions generated made Kim's diplomatic U-turn and the current search for peace - leading to a rash of summits with South Korea and now the US - all the more surprising.

Despite his young age, Kim has stamped his authority on the North Korean leadership, reportedly undertaking a purge of top officials, including his powerful uncle Jang Song Thaek in December 2013 and the armed forces chief Hyon Yong Chol in April 2017.

Ahead of his much-anticipated June 12 meeting with Trump in Singapore, Kim sacked three top defence officials, replacing them with moderates, the Yonhap news agency reported.

Physically the pudgy, round-faced Kim resembles his father and even more closely his grandfather. Some speculate he may have undergone cosmetic surgery to emphasise the similarities.

Kim is believed to have attended school in Switzerland under another name until 1998. The Swiss weekly L'Hebdo reported in 2010 that Kim left the school at age 15 without graduating.

Other students described Kim as shy and introverted, the magazine said, adding that he enjoyed skiing and was interested in basketball.

Former NBA star Dennis Rodman, who has travelled to North Korea five times since 2013 to engage in unofficial "basketball diplomacy," had until recent months provided the world with some of the only first-hand accounts of Kim.

Rodman has consistently described him as his "friend," and his descriptions of the North Korean leader are generally sympathetic.

According to the flamboyant Rodman, he and the North Korean ruler have enjoyed singing karaoke together, riding horses and skiing, Rodman said in a British TV interview.

"We hardly ever talk politics," Rodman said. "We talk about basketball."

Rodman, who was once a contestant on Trump's reality TV show "The Apprentice," said he once gave Kim a copy of Trump's book "The Art of the Deal" to help him understand the US president better.

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